With Biden’s signature, postal reform measure will lift ‘5-ton weight’ dragging down USPS

Advocates of preserving six-day mail delivery rallied outside the Minneapolis Post Office in 2013.

After more than a decade of advocacy in Congress and sometimes in the streets, U.S. Postal Service employees and their unions celebrated a landmark victory last month, when senators joined the House in passing a bill to put the agency on solid footing for the long haul.

The Postal Service Reform Act passed both chambers with bipartisan support, and President Joe Biden is widely expected to sign it into law.

“I’ve been serving people for 25 years, and I’ve never before seen all the unions, management associations, Democrats and Republicans finally say this is something everybody can support,” former St. Paul Postal Workers (APWU) President Todd Elkerton said. “We’re going to be able to deliver packages and letters and bills and prescriptions to everyone in a timely manner now.”

The measure is expected to end the cycle of red ink and service cuts that has plagued the Postal Service since 2006, when then-President George W. Bush signed a law that, among other things, required the agency to prefund its retirees’ health benefits 75 years into the future – an accounting measure virtually unheard of in the public or private sector.

The prefunding mandate has accounted for 85% of USPS budget shortfalls since taking effect, and postal unions have pushed hard on lawmakers to undo what opponents at the time considered a poison pill to defund the agency, long a target of right-wing, free-market ideologues who thrived in the Bush White House.

At marches and protests outside post offices in the Twin Cities and across the nation, union members rallied public support to save the Postal Service. And it worked, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said during a celebratory Zoom call with union leaders days before she joined 78 other senators in voting to pass the bill.

“My view is what happened is that everybody just got so sick of what they were seeing happen, and they just love the post office – it’s highly, highly popular,” she said. “Citizens, especially in rural areas, came together and spoke out.

“Ultimately, members of Congress listened to that and got serious about getting the job done.”

The reform bill eliminates the prefunding mandate, which Smith likened to “a five-ton weight around the ankles” of the USPS, and takes steps to maximize retirees’ participation in Medicare.

It also writes six-day-per-week pickups and delivery into federal law and imposes more public accountability on top Postal Service brass.

“With this legislation, the U.S. Postal Service has survived attempts to privatize it and kill it off, and we are now ensuring it will survive stronger than ever,” said Smith, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Elkerton, who recently accepted a new position as business agent for the APWU, said the COVID-19 pandemic was a turning point in the campaign to pass reform legislation.

After the outbreak in 2020, Americans turned to postal delivery as an alternative to crowded stores and long lines at their polling places. When Trump-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy forged ahead with his plan to slow down first-class delivery and close postal sorting centers, more than 1 million people signed onto a petition to remove him from the job.

“I think the pandemic put a microscope on the service changes and how essential the post office was,” Elkerton said. “When people started ordering packages, our buildings filled up, and because we had shrunk our processing facilities, we could no longer deliver in the timely manner people expected.

“That was all a result of the prefunding mandate that was just sucking money out of the post office.”

– PAI Union News Service contributed to this report.

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